Friday, January 20, 2017

Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”: A Review

A number of my medievalist friends have written more or less extensive reviews of their problems with Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. For the most part, their comments decry how Greenblatt, perhaps the most widely known historicist critic, deploys almost the full barrage of over-simplistic caricatures of the Middle Ages that have been in circulation since Poggio Bracciolini’s day in the fifteenth century.

And it is certainly true the Greenblatt offers only a one-trick middle ages for our view: he, like the humanists the book is primarily about, unsubtly presents the middle ages as the dark ages, no matter how clear the evidence is that the ninth-century Carolingian copies of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura were as crucial to the ultimate re-discovery of the poem as was Poggio’s 1417 copy.

But Greenblatt is, after all, telling a story: and nuance in discussing what happens off-stage in Greenblatt’s story isn’t really useful to him. For the most part, Greenblatt wants his story to say that from the end of the Roman empire to 1417, Lucretius’s poem was unread, unknown, and essentially lost: the effect is to make Poggio’s discovery all the more important. To get there, he pretty much has to say that the Carolingian scribes who copied the poem were careful not to read it: nor does he really ask why they would have invested their precious time and vellum in the work, if it weren’t important to them. The Carolingian Renaissance, after all, is not the one Greenblatt is writing about.

But then again, neither does Greenblatt ever say clearly what he means by the term “modern.” Instead, he hopes that his readers will recognize something of themselves in the things he believes are “modern” (which boils down, more or less, to a scientific worldview, untroubled by Christian orthodoxy; what many “modern” Christians might think isn’t really in Greenblatt’s sights at all: one suspects that he sees them as medieval, too, and thus worthy of caricature).

In the end, the book was not at all what I had expected. I had expected a tale of the recovery of a lost Latin poem, and an account of how that poem had changed the world: made it “swerve” into a new path. But the book is mostly a kind of focused biography of Poggio Bracciolini, which gives Greenblatt a lot of room to tell various compelling stories: of Jan Huss, the Great Schism, and of political and literary wranglings in and around the papal court . The book’s thesis is about the “swerve” into modernity, but only one or two of the chapters really address it.
And maybe it is too much for me to quibble about what I’d have done differently, but Greenblatt repeatedly describes Poggio as a “book hunter,” and one whose efforts preserved more than Lucretius. So Greenblatt gives us a fine recreation of the scene when Poggio finally finds the book of Lucretius's poem in an unnamed German monastery (imagined as Fulda), and pays to have a copy made. From that copy, another copy is made by Niccolo Niccoli.

Greenblatt acknowledges, at one point, that both the Carolingian copy Poggio found and the first scribal copy he had made from it have now both disappeared from view. Poggio, I would say, is a text hunter, not a book hunter, and it might be just as useful to conclude that his concern with preserving the poem seems to have involved no equivalent concern to preserve the older manuscripts. The destruction of the merely “medieval” copy, after all, is of a piece with a fifteenth-century worldview that would soon result in the phenomenon of printed books: the poem lives not in its physical copies, but in an ideal realm, and our job (especially as Renaissance editors) is to restore it to its most correct and proper form. With its beautiful letters, Niccoli’s copy was certainly superior, in Poggio’s eyes, to any medieval copy: Greenblatt seems to accept such a view without demur. The destruction of the “medieval” copy is of a piece, too, with Greenblatt’s unnuanced (though modern!) treatment of the middle ages as a time of unrelieved darkness.

The disappearance from our view of men like Poggio Bracciolini is, of course, as potentially distressing as the disappearance, for a time, of Lucretius’s poem. In that sense, Greenblatt, too, is reviving for us an unremembered tale from the past. But the chance survival of Lucretius’s poem tells us that we build our stories of the past out of chance survivals, with no hope of completeness or even accuracy—and I am not sure it does us any favors to suggest that this one chance survival has, in fact, made us what we are today. To tell a story as if it were so may well be a feature of modernity: but I’m not at all sure it’s Lucretian.


  1. Very nice. Thank you for taking the time on it.

    Bruce G.

  2. I'm not nearly as forgiving of Greenblatt as you are. Neither are most Classicists. Lucretius' poem was never lost. Poggio did not single-handedly rescue it. Lucretius was not the sole transmitter of Epicurus. Medieval Western Europe was not a monolith of pious hostility toward the Classics, it was a time when scholars and intolerance existed side by side, just like Poggio's time and our time.